Updated 03-I-2019

Alfred Swan

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Alfred Swan was the youngest brother of Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, of early electric incandescent lamp fame. Joseph Swan (1828 - 1914) was born in Sunderland, County Durham, England, near the North Sea. He was one of eight children of John and Isabella Swan. The male children, in order of decreasing age, were: John Cameron, Joseph Wilson, George Henry and Alfred; the female children, also listed in order of decreasing age, were: Elizabeth, Isabella, Mary Jane and Emma. What little factual information the writer has about the personal life of Alfred Swan is contained in a small book written by two daughters of John Cameron Swan9, the oldest son of John and Isabella Swan, as well as a book written about Joseph Wilson Swan by his daughter, Mary, and son, Kenneth12. From those books one can conclude that Alfred Swan was also born in Sunderland. Quoting directly from the first book9:
"Alfred, born November 25th 1835, was the youngest of the four sons born to John and Isabella Swan, and was about ten or eleven years old when the family removed from Sunderland to Newcastle, the elder brothers, John and Joseph, having already been there about two years. Their eldest sister, Elizabeth, was chiefly responsible for the early education of the younger members of the family, but this was later supplemented by private tuition from a tutor named Martin, a Scotsman, with a very short temper, which Uncle confesses they often sorely tried by many boyish pranks.

"After the family came to Newcastle Uncle Alfred was sent as a pupil to Mr. Pyburn's Academy, the same Mr. Pyburn whose singing class father, and later, he attended. At the age of thirteen it was necessary for uncle to choose a profession. He thereupon elected to study as an architect, and for that purpose was placed in the office of a Mr. Matthew Thompson to whom he was introduced and recommended by father as a boy who would be found 'attentive and painstaking.' The principal of the firm's reply that 'that was all that was needed ' impressed uncle as being a very rash, though very polite, statement to make. For some years uncle devoted himself to this profession, but later, in 1880, when the 'Swan' lamp took commercial form, he was given an opportunity to interest himself in its manufacture, and from that time the lamp business became his chief interest and occupation.

"True to the traditions of the family for patient research, Uncle Alfred set himself to work in the direction of perfecting the holders and caps for the electric lamps. With this object in view he worked more or less continuously from the year 1882 at an invention for perfecting the insulating material, in which the terminals at the base of the incandescent electric lamp are held. Previously, a process of cold moulding by a plastic, such as plaster of Paris, had generally been employed , but it was found that by using a black glassy substance, reduced to a molten state and moulded into a cap-like shape, a perfect insulating material could be formed. Later, this device was further improved by substituting a brass collar and having the tops of the caps only, insulated with the 'Vitrite,' the name given to this material by uncle.

"In 1902, uncle patented an automatic process by which the 'Vitrite' cap could be produced cheaply and quickly on a large scale. The result was that this form of cap was generally adopted and is now practically in universal use.

"In 1885, uncle and his family removed to New Jersey, U.S.A., where he became associated with the General Electric Company, to whom he disposed of his American Patent. In a letter of recent date in response to an enquiry upon this subject uncle remarks that any improvement he may have made he felt he owed to his brother Joseph, as his work was founded on that of his brother's, and any success was so much added to his brother's name and honour."

The known birth and death dates of members of the Swan family follow9:
John (father) (b. Mar 27 1795; d. Feb 7 1878)
Isabella (mother) (b. May 13 1801; d. Dec 22 1884)
Elizabeth (b. Nov 22 1822: d. Aug 2 1905)
John Cameron (b. Feb 13 1827; d. Jan 1916)
Joseph Wilson (b. Oct 31 1828; d. May 27 1914)
Isabella (b. Apr 20 1830; d. Jun 26 1913)
George Henry (b. Dec 3 1833; d. Jul 24 1913)
Alfred (b. Nov 25 1835; d. Apr 11 1923)
Mary Jane
Apparently the two brothers, John Cameron and Joseph Wilson, were inseparable companions in their youth. In a letter from Alfred to family members, after the death of the two brothers, he wrote9:
"The great affection the two brothers held for one another was certainly a very real and lovely thing. While each had their own individual tastes and interests their lives always seemed as one...

"I myself came much under the direct tutelage and influence of John. It was on him, in my boyhood days I would especially lean and it was to him in later years I would go for that advice and counsel that would determine my future course."

Alfred Swan's whereabouts and activities can be chronicled approximately by considering his U.S. patents. His first patent was issued in 1883 and the addresses given on his first seven were in England. Swan's address on his 8th through the 14th was in New York. His 8th patent was issued in Oct 1890. At that time he lived in Orange, NJ and the assignor was the Insulite Manufacturing Company. Alfred's 15th patent was issued in Nov 1893 and the assignor was the General Electric Company. In total he was issued 28 U.S. patents. His last patent was granted in Nov 1920. At that time his address was in Montclair, NJ.

Alfred Swan was granted a patent in England as early as the year 1880 (No. 2,898)1. In addition, to his many English patents he was granted patents in other countries, including France, Belgium, Italy and Austria. His U.S. Patents are detailed in the section below.

Swan married Emma Ellis in England; she passed away in 18809. They had three sons, Hilton, Ellis and Lyle as well as two daughters, Evelyn and Marion11. At the time of Alfred's death all five children were living in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. Alfred Swan resided at 3 Seneca Avenue, Upper Montclair, New Jersey. In 1920 Alfred Swan was the guest of honor, on occasion of his eighty-fifth birthday, at a banquet given by his friends and associates connected with the Edison Lamp Works of the General Electric Company at Harrison, NJ10. He was interred in Rosedale Cemetery11.

Development of Lamp Bases (Caps)
Alfred Swan was the developer of the bayonet lamp base, or what was earlier called the Ediswan base, as well as the black glass insulation used today in practically all other kinds of lamp bases.

His great skill appears to have been in the area of product design coupled with his deep understanding of manufacturing capability. He was a valuable contributor to the development of the incandescent lamp, but appears to have stood in the shadow of his older brother, Joseph.

During the 1890s the number of incandescent lamp base designs had proliferated to at least 14. Of course, this also meant that just as many socket designs existed. Interchangeability was therefore limited by the use of adapters. In 1895 an editorial in The Electrical Engineer reiterating the need for standardization resulted in a number of letters to the editor. Alfred Swan responded to this call and suggested that views be expressed and discussed. Several people and organizations had preferences but often the reasons behind the choices were lacking. In one of the "Letters to the Editor" that Swan wrote4 his preference and reasons were expressed:

"Your movement in this direction has evidently struck the keynote of a real grievance.

"The grievance being manifest - what is the remedy? That is now the question.

"The letters you have so far received each indicate a preference for one or other of the present types of socket - one writer preferring this type, the other that - but none give reasons for their preference. Would it not be well, therefore, at this stage to have an interchange of views as to what each writer considers are the points of recommendation peculiar to the type he prefers—thus the question will be, how may those good points be embodied in one and the same socket?

"In my former communication I said of the Thomson-Houston base that it favored a 'simpler, safer and less expensive' form of socket. I now desire to substantiate that statement by reasons.

"It is simpler because of its fewer parts and because no insulation is needed to guard against a short circuit through the metal forming its outer case.

"It is safer, electrically, because, in handling, there is little or no risk of an accidental contact between an electrode and the case of the socket (both electrodes being internally situated within the circumference of the porcelain block to which they are affixed) while, in regard to the other types, it is this liability to accidental contact which makes them faulty in this respect.

"It is safer, mechanically, than the screw-shell of the Edison type because the latter, having a very coarsely pitched thread, is liable to work loose by vibration, whereas the contact nipple in the center of the Thomson-Houston socket is finely threaded and therefore much safer in this respect.

"It is less expensive, because of its fewer and simpler parts and also, by reason of the arrangement of its electrodes, it admits of reduced proportions in every respect.

"It is objected that this form of socket involves a more expensive base.

"But this question, I apprehend, is not to be determined by types as at present embodied in practical manufacture but rather by the possibilities inherent in each case—and, viewed from this standpoint, there does not appear to be, and really is not, any valid reason why a base adapted to a Thomson-Houston type of socket should cost as much as it now does, or, indeed, any more than for the other types."

History has shown that the Thomson-Houston socket was not the one standardized; the Edison screw-type is used in the United States for the larger lamp types. This writer believes that Swan made some valid points regarding the Thomson-Houston base and socket—certainly the one about the lesser danger of shock being of great importance.

Shown below is the first page of Alfred Swan's US Patent 774,404, the date of which can inclidentally be found stamped on the brass base of lamps manufactured and controlled by the General Electric Company at the beginning of the 20th century. This technique was used for many years afterwards and often erroneously leads lamp collectors to believe that they have a lamp from 1904, whereas that in fact only refers to the date of Swan's base patent.

Alfred Swan's US Patent 774,404

  1. US 275,730 - Apr 10, 1883 - Moulding Bulbs - Gateshead, County of Durham
  2. US 276,924 - May 1, 1883 - Glass Bulb; bulb made in mould - Gateshead
  3. US 276,982 - May 1, 1883 - Roll to Flatten Leads - Gateshead
  4. US 292,447 - Jan 22, 1884 - Holder - Gateshead, County of Durham
  5. US 313,965 - Mar 17, 1885 - Holder - Low Fell Works, Gateshead/Tyne
  6. US 339,822 - Apr 13, 1886 - Vitreous - Lowfell, Gateshead-On-Tyne
  7. US 362,469 - May 3, 1887 - Switch - Newcastle-Upon-Tyne; Vitrite and Luminoid
  8. US 439,363 - Oct 28, 1890 - Lamp - Orange, NJ; Insulite Mfg. Co. of NY
  9. US 439,364 - Oct 28, 1890 - Socket - Orange, NJ; Insulite Mfg. Co. of NY
  10. US 439,365 - Oct 28, 1890 - Socket - Orange, NJ; Insulite Mfg. Co. of NY
  11. US 439,366 - Oct 28, 1890 - Socket - Orange, NJ; Insulite Mfg. Co. of NY
  12. US 439,367 - Oct 28, 1890 - Socket - Orange, NJ; Insulite Mfg. Co. of NY
  13. US 461,456 - Oct 20, 1891 - Switch - Orange, NJ; Insulite Mfg. Co. of NY
  14. US 463,396 - Nov 17, 1891 - Switch - Orange, NJ; Insulite Mfg. Co. of NY
  15. US 508,644 - Nov 14, 189 - Block - Orange, NJ; Insulite Mfg. Co. of NYSchenectady, NY; GE of Boston
  16. US 516,844 - Mar 20, 1894 - Socket - Orange, NJ; Insulite Mfg. Co. of NYSchenectady, NY; GE of Boston
  17. US 570,517 - Nov 3, 1896 - Lamp & Socket - NY, NY
  18. US 573,929 - Dec 29, 1896 - Fitting - NY, NY
  19. US 583,204 - May 25, 1897 - Lamp - NY, NY; GE-New York
  20. US 684,880 - Oct 22, 1901 - Base - NY, NY; GE-New York
  21. US 774,404 - Nov 8, 1904 - Base - NY, NY; GE-New York
  22. US 775,689 - Nov 22, 1904 - NY, NY; GE-New York
  23. US 828,582 - Aug 14, 1906 - Adapter - NY, NY; GE-New York
  24. US 905,478 - Dec 1, 1908 - Lamp - NY, NY; GE-New York
  25. US 996,374 - Jun 27, 1911 - Soldering Machine - Upper Montclair, NJ; GE
  26. US 1,011,523 - Dec 12, 1911 - Lamp Machine - Upper Montclair, NJ; GE
  27. US 1,306,643 - Jun 10, 1919 - Apparatus - Montclair, NJ; GE
  28. US 1,360,152 - Nov 23, 1920 - Method to Base - Montclair, NJ; GE

  1. "Electric Illumination", Vol II, James Dredge, Dr. M.F. O'Reilly, H. Vivarez, London, 1885.
  2. "Standardizing Lamp Sockets", The Electrical Engineer, Vol.XX No.386, Sep 25 1895, p.304.
  3. "The Movement for Standardizing Lamp Sockets", The Electrical Engineer", Vol.XX No.388, Oct 9 1895, p.347.
  4. "The Necessity for Standardizing Lamp Sockets", Alfred Swan, The Electrical Engineer, Vol.XX No.391, Oct 30 1895, p.425.
  5. "The 'Standard' Socket Question", Alfred Swan, The Electrical Engineer, Vol.XX No.393, Nov 13 1895, p.478.
  6. "The Desirability of a Standard Socket", Alfred Swan, Electrical Review, Vol.28 No.21, May 20 1896, p.263.
  7. "The Standardization of Lamp Sockets", Alfred Swan, The Electrical Engineer, Vol.XXI No.421, May 27 1896, p.559.
  8. "Standardizing Incandescent Lamp Sockets", Alfred Swan, The Electrical Engineer, Vol.XXI No.421, May 27 1896, p.563.
  9. "John Cameron Swan: His Family and Friends, 1827-1916", Emily and Mary Swan, Headley Bros., Ashford, Kent, ca 1918.
  10. Electrical World, Vol.77 No.3, Jan 15 1921, p.173.
  11. "Obsequies for Alfred Swan", Newark Evening News, Apr 14 1923, p.5 col.4.
  12. "Sir Joseph Wilson Swan F.R.S.: A Memoir", Mary E. Swan & Kenneth R. Swan, Ernest Benn Limited, London, Bouverie House, 1929.
  13. "Sir Joseph Swan and the Invention of the Incandescent Electric Lamp", Kenneth R. Swan, Longsman, Green and Co., London, 1948.
  14. "In The Days of My Youth: Some Random Reminiscenses of My Early Years", Sir Kenneth R. Swan, Oxford University Press, 1964.
  15. "Sir Joseph Wilson Swan F.R.S.: Inventor and Scientist", Mary E. Swan & Kenneth R. Swan, Oriel Press, 1968.